Traveler's Checklist: Wright Brothers National Memorial

Plane SculptureMonument on Kill Devil Hill

Stainless steel sculpture of the First Flyer. Wright Brothers Monument on Kill Devil Hill. Photos by Danny Bernstein

The North Carolina license plate claims First in Flight while Ohio's plate promotes Birthplace of Aviation. Can both be right?

After all, both states lay claim to the Wright Brothers, the 'firsts' to succeed in power-driven flights, and both have National Park System units commemorating the inventors. The Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hill on the north end of the Outer Banks in North Carolina interprets the site of the first flight, while the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park tells the brothers' story from bike racers and repairers to manned flight pioneers and visionaries.

Wilbur and Orville Wright might have been Bill Gates’ predecessors. They were tinkerers, but they were also very skilled in math and science. When the brothers felt that they had nothing to learn from school anymore, they quit high school but kept taking correspondence courses.

From bicycle racers, they became bicycle repairers, and then bicycle manufacturers in Dayton, Ohio. But they always dreamed of powered flight. They studied the inventions and failures of others trying to fly. They also stared at birds for a long time.

So how did they end up in the Outer Banks of North Carolina?

The Wrights were meticulous in their preparation. They wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington searching for places with wind, sand, and no obstacles. The Outer Banks was on the list. They then wrote to the postmaster at Kitty Hawk (Kill Devil Hill was just a hill then and not a town) and William J. Tate replied with an offer of free room and board. A letter from Orville in 1900 read, “We came down here for wind and sand and we have got them.”

The Wright Brothers site is spread out. Dress comfortably, take lunch, and plan to stay several hours because there's lots to do. Here's an outline of just some of the things you can do:

* Start at the Visitor Center where the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright is told through exhibits and sketches. The brothers are always depicted wearing jacket, tie, and workmen’s cap. This building houses the main bookstore.

* Visit the Flight Room auditorium in the Visitor Center. Instead of a standard theater seating arrangements, chairs surround a full scale replica of the original 1903 Wright Brothers plane, the Flyer. The auditorium also displays their kites and a sewing machine used to modify fabric on their glider. Around the Flight Room auditorium, portraits of other famous flyers have been hung including President George H.W. Bush and Amelia Earhart.

* Attend a 30-minute program in the auditorium, given several times a day. Steve Jones, a full-time volunteer, relates the human side of the Wright Brothers. Mr. Jones emphasizes that the brothers' mother went to college, which was very unusual in the 19th Century. She taught her children mathematics and languages and how to fly kites. At the time, their father, an itinerant minister for the United Brethren, was not home much.

Mr. Jones also demonstrates how the plane worked by pushing and pulling on controls. The brothers used bike pieces and principles of body motion as in a bicycle. Mr. Jones believes that, “The story is not just about planes but about family and faith in each other and perseverance."

* Walk the grounds to the First Flight Boulder. A memorial plaque set in stone was erected by the National Aeronautical Association in 1928 to mark the take-off spot. The big day was December 17, 1903, when Orville Wright's first flight carried him 120 feet in the air in 12 seconds. The day's last flight, by Wilbur, covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. If you just see these markers, you miss the most important story - the many unsuccessful flights that dived into the ground. You can find information on those flights back in the visitor center.

* Go up to the Wright Brothers Monument on Kill Devil Hill to enjoy the fantastic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound. This was the place where the inventors experimented with hundreds of glider flights before they succeeded with powered flight.

* Take the path around the monument to see a life-sized stainless steel sculpture of the first Flyer. In back of the airplane are statues of the men and boys who helped the Wright Brothers drag and position the plane correctly.

* See the reconstructed hangar and living quarters. A picture shows a well-supplied and outfitted kitchen; the Wrights were not camping out. A sign quotes Wilbur on 11/23/1903 “We intent to be comfortable while we are here.”

* Visit the Centennial Pavilion for displays and a movie. The pavilion itself is worth a good look; it's constructed of fabric by the Sprung Company, first used for chuck wagon covers and teepees.

* Watch the 40-minute movie in the Pavilion entitled How Strong Is The Wind? narrated by Harry Combs. Mr. Combs was an aviation pioneer who built planes and became president of Learjet. The narrator emphasizes that the Wrights were “doers with dreams.” They spent hours watching birds. They couldn’t replicate the birds that continuously flapped their wings, so they studied birds that soared and stayed in the air.

* In the Pavilion, walk through an exhibit on life in the Outer Banks at the turn of the 20th Century and the Future of Flight exhibit. There's a small bookstore here as well.

* If you want more about the Wright Brothers, visit Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.

After 1903, the Wright Brothers tried to get a patent in the United States, but there was a lot of skepticism about their flying machine. They went to Europe where they were able to obtain patents. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. By 1915, Orville was a multi-millionaire and aviation really took off. Orville saw their invention bloom through two world wars. He lived in Dayton where he continued to be a tinkerer and inventor until his death in 1948.

Traveler postscript: I was told that the average visitor stays 90 minutes; I was there almost five hours.

While on the Outer Banks, I read The Outer Banks, a travel narrative by British author, Anthony Bailey (University of North Carolina, 1999). One incident sent chills down my spine:

As a child, Mr. Bailey spent four years during World War II living in Dayton, a few blocks from the Wright home. While visiting the Wright Brothers Memorial in 1985, he realizes his connection with Orville Wright. He writes that he was dimly aware of the “old man” who puttered in his garage.

When Mr. Bailey and his friends went out on Halloween night and knocked on Wright’s door with “Trick or Treat Mr. Wright?”, he didn’t realize at the time that the hand that gave each boy a silver dollar was the same hand that worked the controls of the first powered aircraft.